Why is contentment a problem? As with most aspects of godly character, contentment is a middle path between two unacceptable extremes, complacency and covetousness. In our world contentment is rare–we are rarely satisfied with our relationships, with our possessions, with our place in life. We are complacent when it comes to our morals–not often diligent in fulfilling our duties, or we are covetous when it comes to desiring more power and money and higher positions for ourselves. But though we often oscillate between complacency and covetousness, we seldom find contentment, much less remain there for any length of time.
Contentment is an active state, though it is often portrayed passively. It is an active satisfaction with what God has given in blessings and relationships, taking those steps as is necessary to keep relationships strong and fulfill the responsibilities of one’s offices. Neither of these is very easy to do. We must do these things while resisting both the urge to coast and to fail to give our best to fulfill our responsibilities to others as well as the envy and dissatisfaction that come from feeling ignored or unappreciated for what one does for often thankless tasks done for unthankful people, and while remaining patient for God to fulfill our deepest and unmet longings. I won’t pretend that it is any easier for me than it is for anyone else, but it is (like many problems) something I struggle very seriously with.
There are many enemies to contentment but they generally boil down to one of two larger categories: complacency or covetousness. Each of these can be a serious enemy to genuine contentment–one because it places undue stress on others for our free riding and failure to behave responsibly, and the other because it places pressure on our relationships with others and our stability because of our desire for more that we do not possess, which can lead us to neglect to appreciate those things that we do have. In fact, these two enemies are in reality often mirror images of each other, and sometimes both present in the same problems.
It is especially galling when people are complacent about themselves but try to nag others into doing more. For example, when people demand that other people cut them a lot of slack because of health problems or age or other factors but are not willing to cut the same amount of slack for others, there is a serious problem. The same is true when others demand to be forgiven of their mistakes but are not willing to do the same for others either. What we have here are failures in respect and reciprocity that make genuine relationships impossible. The same is true in reverse. We might be poisoned with ambition and desire to climb the ladder to reach the height of our ambitions but might expect our partner to be content with the little time that we can give them and with less desirable tasks because of our ambition. This is also a failure of reciprocity, desiring the benefits of ambition and covetousness for ourselves while being complacent about the state of our relationships and desiring all of the work for stability and contentment to come from others as a free benefit to us. Here respect is lacking as well.
What makes contentment so hard is that it requires a lot of effort and its benefits tend to be back-loaded. Most us are oriented to working with short-term time frames. We want success to be fairly immediate to reward our labors quickly–and those tasks that do not offer instant gratification of some kind tend to get neglected as unsatisfying, regardless of how important and necessary they are. Likewise, we are generally also unwilling to pay and suffer now for benefit later on. This asymmetry between our inability either to wait for benefits or accept present suffering in exchange for future glory tends to reinforce only a very small amount of behaviors that are generally not productive over the long run. But, with that mindset, future values tend to be discounted to zero anyway, so the long run is not even taken into consideration.
Both covetousness and complacency are short-term oriented strategies. Complacency is the strategy we operate when we do not want to think about future suffering so we put it out of mind by not worrying about problems or dealing with them before it is absolutely necessary and we are forced to wrestle with them. Covetousness is our look for short-term benefits (especially from what others possess or what we do not have) without an eye toward long-term sustainability or viability. One strategy focuses on our desire to avoid suffering and unpleasantness, and the other on our desire for results now without being patient for steady long-term growth. And both tend to result in bad long-term results–burnout, broken relationships, mistrust and skepticism over repeated false promises.
So, contentment is a problem. It is hard to do one’s duties when other people do not appreciate how difficult those tasks are to accomplish. It is hard to remain content and not succumb to envy when you see other people enjoy your deepest longings and see no way for you to enjoy those anytime soon. It is hard to trust that God will fulfill His promises when you are used to other people not meeting their duties and responsibilities in the past. It is hard to be good when evil seems to prosper for now. It is hard to work hard and be patient when no results seem forthcoming. No one said contentment was easy–the real question is whether it is worth it, when viewed over the long run.
Again, assuming we are dealing with people who are genuinely hard working and value relationships and are trustworthy people of integrity, is it better to be patient? Absolutely. Is it better to accept the strengths and weaknesses of those we are in relationships and to work toward minimizing the weaknesses and maximizing the strengths, whether we are in businesses or governments or families or churches? Absolutely. But, we have to make sure that we are neither too covetous and pushy for ourselves (or too nagging of others) or too complacent about ourselves and our relationships. That is the real difficulty of contentment, the real problem we have to deal with. Balance is always difficult to attain and even more difficult to maintain in the face of pressures in many directions. What was satisfactory in the past may not be in the present, and certainly will not be in the future. Some growth is expected over time, and as a result, our contentment tends to mean that requirements be scaled to grow at a steady and gradual rate, not so fast that it requires shortcuts and leads to burnout, and not nonexistent so that we become lazy and complacent. Rather, our goal is to be pokey turtles moving little by little in the right direction, consolidating our gains, and then moving on to further challenges while remaining content with what God has given us for now, in the hope that we will receive the blessings and objects of our longing if we remain patient and hardworking.